Ray Ainsley, Golfer Who Scored a 19 in U.S. Open

In the 1938 U.S. Open, a little-known club professional named Ray Ainsley wrote his name into the U.S. Open record books. Unfortunately for Ainsley, it was for doing something wrong: scoring 19 on a single hole.

Ainsley's score of 19 on the 16th hole at Cherry Hills Country Club in 1938 is the worst single-hole score in U.S. Open history. It is also the highest-known score in any of the four professional major championships of men's golf, and one of the worst one-hole scores in PGA Tour history.

How did it happen? And just who was Ray Ainsley? Let's dig into the amusing (to everyone except Ainsley) details.

Ainsley Had a Good Start

The 1938 U.S. Open was played at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver. It was the first U.S. Open played west of the Rockies.

Ainsley started out playing well: He turned in a 76 for the first round. On a day when nobody broke 70, Ainsley was in the middle of the pack and only six strokes off the lead. His first-round 76 was was better than the scores posted by Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Paul Runyan, Horton Smith, Tommy Armour or Jimmy Demaret, future Hall of Famers all.

He wasn't playing quite as well in the second round, but through 15 holes he was still in decent shape, still with an outside shot to make the cut.

Disaster Struck on the 16th Hole

The 16th hole at Cherry Hills has a creek — named Little Dry Creek, even though it has running water in it — down its length. It starts on the right side of the fairway, then cuts across the middle of the fairway before going up the left side of the green.

Ainsley's problem? His second shot hit an embankment of that creek near the green, and trickled down into the water, which, that year, was moving at a pretty good pace.

Ainsley could have plucked his ball out of the water with a one-stroke penalty (the rule at the time) and dropped. But he didn't realize what his options were. And so Ray started hacking away at the ball, which, due to the current, kept moving farther and farther away from the green. He splashed around for a while — one newspaper's probably exaggerated account claimed that one swing knocked a fish out of the stream ("Play the fish!" fans supposedly screamed) while leaving the ball in the water — before hacking it out. But then Ainsley had more trouble in the form of trees.

When it was all over, nearly 30 minutes had passed, and the official scorer had given up trying to keep count.

Universal Press International columnist Henry McLemore wrote for the next day's papers: "For almost half an hour he stood in a swift-moving creek that borders the 16th green and belabored his ball with blows. It is recorded that a little girl who witnessed his effort to knock the ball from the creek turned to her mother when Ainsley finally got it out and said: 'Mummy, it must be dead now, because the man has quit hitting it.' "

Ainsley was paired with Bud McKinney during the round, and years later McKinney recalled the incident for an article that used to appear (alas, it no longer does) on the Cherry Hills website.

"It was so funny watching him swipe at the ball," McKinney said. "I walked down the creek behind Ainsley, and by this time, a couple of hundred people came down to see what was going on. ... He was hitting the ball like a wild man. He was hitting and hitting the ball and it would occasionally jump like a fish and land on the bank only to roll back in. That ball would jump up on the bank and you'd hear the crowd scream, 'There it is! There it is!' And then it would roll back in the water. At one point I remember Ainsley dropped a club in the water because the grip was so wet. He had lost probably 75 yards in distance by the time he finally got it out."

Ainsley's Own Account of His 19

Associated Press reporter Russ Newland, who called Ainsley "a fine golfer and a swell fellow," was one of few reporters who spoke to Ainsley after the round. Newland said that Ainsley quipped, "There's more than one way to become famous."

Ainsley's clothes were still wet when he sat down in the press room to speak to Newland. Here, in Ainsley's own words, is the story he told Newland about that score of 19 on the 16th hole:

"I hit what started out as a swell drive. The ball hooks into the rough. My pitch out was OK but the ball rolls into a creek. The water is shallow but carries the ball along ... I should say about six miles per hour.

"After three swings the only result is a good soaking. I lose my temper for the moment and throw the club at the ball four times. Each fling costs a stroke and the ball rolls merrily along."

(What Ainsley means by the ball rolling merrily along is that the current of the creek was carrying the ball back, away from the green.)

"By this time the officials are laughing. So are the spectators. And my partner. I'm laughing, too — the hard way. I even think my ball is laughing at me.

"Finally I hit out but it rests in deep sand. I blast out but the ball is still feeling its oats, or something. It lands 50 yards over the green, under a tree. On the next shot it hits another tree. Next time I'm on the green. The count is 17. Two putts and it's in the hole.

"The official scorer, who had lost count at 13 through laughing so hard, informs me I could have dropped out in the first place with a penalty stroke of one. I thought it was a two-stroke penalty to start with. Boy, hand me that straight jacket."

The account that once appeared on the Cherry Hills website included this: "When asked by USGA Rules Committee Chairman Morton Bogue why he didn’t taken a drop, Ainsley responded: 'I thought I had to play the ball as it lay all the time.' It was only then he remembered the rule regarding taking relief from a water hazard."

His playing partner, McKinney, recalled that the official scorer walking with their group asked McKinney to take up the count because he (the scorer) was laughing too hard to continue. McKinney also recalled that some in the crowd believed Ainsley's score was even higher — a 21 or even 23. But 19 is the count McKinney came up with, and that's what was written on the scorecard.

When the round was over, Ainsley signed for a 96, 25-over par. (Had Ainsley parred the hole, he would have finished with an 81 and missed the cut by two strokes.) Ainsley set a second record, too: Going from 76 to 96 represented the biggest difference in score from one round to another in the U.S. Open. (That record also still stands, although since tied: Scott Simpson had a 20-stroke round differential in the 1992 U.S. Open, going from 68 in Round 3 to 88 in Round 4.)

Whose record for worst single-hole score in the U.S. Open did Ainsley break? In the 1919 U.S. Open, Willie Chisholm scored 18 on a par-3 hole. At least Ainsley's debacle happened on a par-4.

Who Was Ray Ainsley?

What else can we tell you about Ray Ainsley? The answer, before we started working on this article, was "not much." There are lots of articles, in books and on the web, about Ainsley's 19. But they refer to him as "a mystery man" or "a little-known golfer," or simply state that he was "a club pro from Ojai, Calif.," and leave it at that. But, with geneological assistance from researcher Nita Selby, we can tell you much more about Ainsley now.

Ainsley was a lanky 5-foot-11 and weighed around 150 pounds, with blonde hair and blue eyes. And he was a terrific golfer: He played his way into a U.S. Open through qualifying rounds, after all. We've also found that Ainsley played in three regular PGA Tour events over the years, one in 1926, one in 1937 and, in addition to the U.S. Open, one in 1938. He made the cut in all three.

But throughout his professional life, he worked as a club pro who also handled greenskeeping chores.

Raymond Ainsley was born June 23, 1901 in Spokane, Washington. By the time of the 1920 United States census, Ainsley was working as caddie master at a golf club in Kitsap, Washington.

By the early 1920s, he'd made his first foray to California, working as an assistant at Berkeley Country Club in Berkeley, Calif. By the time of the 1930 census, we find Ainsley in Florida, working as a golf professional and greenskeeper in Jacksonville.

By the time of the 1938 U.S. Open, Ainsley was the pro at Ojai (Calif.) Country Club. In the 1940 census, he listed his occupation as superintendent, was earning $3,780 per year and living in rural Ventura County, California (where Ojai is located).

An issue of the USGA Journal from June 1949 reported that Ainsley was "now professional at the Montecito Golf Club in Santa Barbara, Calif.," and he appears to have lived out his life in Santa Barbara after that.

In 1951, his first wife, Mabel, died. In 1971, Ainsley married his second wife, Adelia, in a ceremony in Las Vegas.

We have found no record that any of the reporters who wrote about Ainsley's 19 during the last few decades of his life attempted to track him down and interview him. Of course, they could have tried and been unable to find him, or tried only for him to decline their interview requests. We don't know. We do know he was an excellent golfer who had a long career as a club pro and greenskeeper.

On October 8, 1986, Ray Ainsley passed away at the age of 85 in Santa Barbara. He lives on in the U.S. Open record book.

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